The Japanese Custom of Bowing

If you are going to visit Japan or are involved in any interaction with Japanese people, it’s good to know the Japanese custom of bowing. While the handshake is the standard greeting in most parts of the world, even today, the Japanese still bow as it is ingrained in their culture, lifestyle and habits.  Therefore,  there are all levels of bowing from the casual acknowledgment to the deep apology.  For most of us, as long as we show respect for the other person and return the bow, you will probably be doing the right thing.

Within daily activities, when seeing neighbors, friends and acquaintances in passing, we use the casual bow.  It’s similar to the casual wave, in that it’s just to acknowledge the other person to say hello.  This is just a slight tilt of the head. But because there is no physical contact, remember to have good eye contact.  I don’t know why but men tend to tilt their heads straight down, while women tilt it to the side.  I wonder if that’s because that’s just a more feminine gesture?

A simple rule of thumb  I use is, the more formal the occasion, the deeper and slower the bow.  Also it’s good to remember that both status and age play a part in bowing.  That’s why when you receive a business card in Japan, they always identify your position, profession or rank, so everyone will immediately know how to show the appropriate respect toward one another.   If you are a foreigner and make a mistake, not to worry.  The Japanese are very forgiving to non-Japanese, but toward their own citizens who don’t know or show the proper etiquette, it can be a major embarrassment.  Usually, the parents will be blamed for not teaching and raising their children with the correct manners.

So here are a few of my simple tips to keep in mind if you greet a Japanese person.

  1. Casual greetings only need a casual bow, so your body movement should be relaxed and you only need to bend your head slightly.
  2. How long to bow? A slower bow is more formal and respectful than a faster bow
  3. How deep should one bow? The general rule is the deeper the bow the more respectful.  Therefore, this means that you bow lower than the other person if they are older than you or have higher seniority or social standing.
  4. When the body is rigid, I call it a stiff bow.  These types of bows are also very formal but can also be seen at retail shops when the employees bow to the customers.
  5. Where to put your hands when bowing? For men, keep your arms to the side of your body and your hands connected to your legs.  For women, the hands are slightly crossed in front of the body.
  6. When to return a bow. If someone bows at you, if you bow back you will do no wrong.  However, sometimes at retail shops, it is just customary for the employees to show respect to their customers so it’s not always necessary to return a bow at such times.
  7. Bowing is also part of many cultural activities such as tea ceremony and martial arts. During lessons, I figured that if I just keep bowing I can’t be doing anything wrong, so if in doubt, just bow.
  8. My last tip for bowing may not be very respectful, but if done in good spirits it’s helpful.  In the privacy of their home, the Japanese have a great sense of humor, but out in public and when bowing they tend to be quite stoic.  I found that if you smile and bow, you will probably be forgiven if you did anything inappropriate!

Do you recall the photo of President Obama in 2009 when he visited Japan and bowed as he greeted the Emperor and Empress of Japan.  There was a lot of controversy because many foreign newspapers criticized Obama for bowing too low.  As the President of the United States, they didn’t think he should bow that low.  As I see it, the President was showing his respect to the Emperor and Empress as well as to the culture and people of Japan.  As a Japanese American I thought that was wonderful.

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  3. Thanks for clearing this up for me. I forgot where I heard it from but I always thought that the lower you bow the less respect you’re showing. And judging by the martial arts movies I watch; when they bow to their mortal enemy its pretty low helping the false information seem true. Thanks for this.

  4. As a retired military man and spending a great deal of time in Asia I tried to lear a bit of every language in a country I went to and learn some of the culture. Learning simple phrases like thank you, please, bowing etc went a long way to not be the ugly and rude American. I found that the Japanese, Koreans, etc appreciated even the attempts of learning these things. Yes if you make a mistake they are forgiving. I loved the Asian people and their welcoming of myself and family.

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